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wot I read on my hols by alan robson (orsum orsum)

New Words and Some Old Ones Too

Piranesi is a new novel (well, actually more of a novella, it’s quite short) from Susanna Clarke, the author of the stunningly brilliant fantasy Jonathan Strange ! Mr Norrel. It’s a rather strange epistolary story which is made up of entries from a journal kept by the eponymous Piranesi. The entries are mostly dated according to a calendar of his own devising, though some of his earlier journals do have rather more conventional dates.

Piranesi lives in a building which consists of a seemingly infinite set of halls connected to each other by a labyrinth of corridors. The rooms are lined with alcoves containing marvellously detailed statues. There is an ocean in the lower levels of the building (or maybe the building is floating on an ocean – this point is never quite clarified) and every so often parts of it are flooded. The building is the only world that Piranesi knows, and his job is to explore it so that he can learn the details of how the world works.

By the time the story opens, Piranesi has mapped a large part of the labyrinth and he has worked out the forces that govern the tides. Therefore he is able to forecast the arrival of the floods. Consequently he no longer regards them as dangerous for now they are easy to avoid. The sea itself is the source of most (though not all) of his food and his clothing, so he respects it and he strives hard to understand it.

Piranesi knows that only fifteen people have ever lived in the world. He himself is one of these people. He holds regular meetings with another person who he refers to as The Other. Sometimes The Other brings Piranesi gifts – food, clothes, shoes, the occasional useful tool. The other thirteen people in the world are all dead. Piranesi looks after their skeletons with great reverence.

The descriptions of the building and the details of Piranesi’s exploration of it are beautifully written and thoroughly absorbing (though sometimes they are a little repetitive which can be a bit frustrating). The story paints unforgettable and wonderfully detailed pictures in the mind. There is no doubt at all that the book is a tour de force of magnificently evocative writing.

However Piranesi's journal soon leaves the reader overwhelmed with questions about the very, very odd world that Piranesi is documenting. Just who is Piranesi? Where and what is this building in which he lives? How did he get there? Will he ever leave the building? Who is The Other? Who were the thirteen people who are no longer alive in the world? All these questions are eventually answered and when the answers are revealed the whole story disintegrates because it can no longer bear the weight of its own significance.

The premise that lies behind Piranesi’s very peculiar world is deeply, deeply stupid, and therefore I found myself quite unwilling to suspend my disbelief in it. I simply could not bring myself to accept that Piranesi’s reality was in any way connected to my own. It was completely impossible for me to believe that Piranesi’s reality could even exist in any meaningful way…

Many stories, of course, are built on a foundation of really dumb ideas. In and of itself that isn’t necessarily a grievous sin. Most authors are able to recognise the stupidity of the mad ideas that lie behind their stories and so they do a lot of word- and hand-waving as they try very hard to justify their implausibilities. Because they work so hard to maintain the illusion of verisimilitude, the ideas put forward by these authors are (superficially at least) quite convincing, no matter how nonsensical they might actually be. So generally speaking, I usually find that I have no difficulty at all in suspending my disbelief in them. I am almost always quite happy to go along with whatever rubbish the author tells me, just for the sake of the story. Like the White Queen, I can happily believe six impossible things before breakfast. But Susanna Clarke does not even try to convince me of the reality of Piranesi’s world. She simply accepts it as a given. She presents her arrant nonsense as if it is a truth, universally acknowledged, which it patently is not. And therefore, because she seems to be quite uninterested in attempting to give any justification to the building blocks from which her story is constructed, everything falls apart at the end, leaving her story lying in ruins. The ruins are undeniably extraordinarily beautiful, but sometimes that just isn’t good enough.

Casting around for something else to read after this disappointment, and for no very good reason except that I felt like it, I decided that it was time for me to re-read David Gerrold’s (as yet uncompleted) series about the war against the Chtorr. Perhaps it was a mistake to try reading the books back to back. I must confess that I only managed to make it to the end of the third book before giving up. I simply couldn’t face the thought of reading the fourth one straight away after I had finished the third. Binge reading sometimes has its drawbacks. Word fatigue is not the least of these. Maybe I’ll return to the fourth book when (or, more likely, if) Gerrold ever gets around to writing the fifth novel that he’s been promising us for nearly thirty years now.

The premise that lies behind the series is quite a fascinating one. The Earth has been invaded by aliens (the eponymous Chtorr). But it’s a very subtle invasion – there are no ravening alien hordes equipped with spaceships and ray guns in these novels. Instead, the Earth has been seeded with specimens of the Chtorran ecology which is slowly taking over and dominating the local ecology. Just as we might once have had plans to terraform Mars so that we could go and live there, so it seems that the aliens are slowly but surely chtorraforming (if that’s a word) the Earth so that they can come and live here.

The books are partly about humanity’s largely unsuccessful attempts to fight back against the encroaching Chtorran menace, partly about the extraordinarily ingenious and fascinating details of the Chtorran ecology itself, and partly about Gerrold’s own extremely peculiar ideas about politics, psychology, sociology and human relationships. Various authorial mouthpieces present the reader with interminable lectures on all these subjects. The novels are very didactic – indeed, the third novel opens with an unapologetic introduction that explicitly points this out and which then goes on to suggest that if the reader isn’t happy about being lectured to then perhaps they should go and read some other book instead!

Gerrold has never made any secret of his admiration for Robert Heinlein and in his Chtorran novels he is deliberately channelling his inner Heinlein for maximum effect. For example, the books are full of pithily witty sayings attributed to one Solomon Short – this is clearly the impenetrable pseudonym used by Heinlein’s own Lazarus Long when he goes slumming. The Chtorr novels also contain lots of classroom set pieces that pay a deliberate homage to the classroom lectures on History and Moral Philosophy that were dramatised to such great effect in Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers.

In itself, the didactic nature of the Chtorr novels does not necessarily make them bad books. The equally didactic Starship Troopers has always been one of Robert Heinlein’s more popular novels. Similarly, even though the Chtorr series remains incomplete it still has a very large, enthusiastic and very vocal following. The first novel in the series was originally published (in a rather heavily abridged version) way back in 1983. A more complete version appeared some six years later. The entire series is still in print today. That’s an enviable longevity. A lot of writers would willingly sacrifice the letter ‘E’ on their keyboard in exchange for such a publication record. Furthermore, I am well aware that I am by no means alone in my eagerness to see the publication of book number five! Members of various SF discussion groups on the internet constantly ask each other when it is likely to appear. Over the years, Gerrold has dropped heavy hints about its imminent publication, but none of his forecasts have ever come to pass. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

There is no doubt that the self-indulgent lectures that dominate these books have a tendency to induce apoplexy in some of their readers, myself among them. The temptation to argue with the words on the printed page is almost overwhelming at times. I suppose, now that the internet has been invented, you could try arguing with Gerrold directly via email or some such mechanism. But I doubt that he’d respond. That way lies madness…

The books are extremely discursive as well as didactic. Gerrold takes great delight in wandering off to explore a lot of completely unrelated tangents as and when they occur to him. These digressions take him down many strange highways and byways. Sometimes it can be quite a long time before he returns to the main line of the plot again! The episode of the Baby Cooper Dollar Bill is a particularly memorable one which occupies some twenty pages or so before it is resolved. A lot of people think of these digressions as being quite unnecessary padding. They point out that early editions of the first two books were published without any of these episodes being included in them. Certainly the lack of these asides did not have any great effect on the direction taken by the main line of the story so maybe the original editors were right not to include them!  Nevertheless, all the modern editions of the first two books have now had the episodes reinstated. The reason for that is not hard to find. These little asides are quite charming and delightful, and they are never less than interesting. Personally, I am firmly of the opinion that they really do have an important role to play. They are thoughtful and entertaining and they stick in the mind. As a result, they add depth and body to the story, fleshing out its details, giving insights into the motivations of the characters. That is their saving grace – and what more could anybody possibly want? A close friend to whom I confessed my re-reading project immediately began reminiscing about the Baby Cooper Dollar Bill. He remembered the anecdote perfectly despite the fact that he has not read any of the Chtorr books for at least twenty five years. I think that fact speaks for itself. I rest my case.

Even at his most pontifical worst, Gerrold is never less than entertaining (though he is often overwhelming). He has a quite enviable ability to coin pithy phrases that really ram his lectures home into your skull, where they get firmly nailed into place. I am quite certain that if David Gerrold does ever finish writing the Chtorr series, time will judge it be his masterpiece.

A Song for the Dark Times is the twenty-somethingth novel in Ian Rankin’s series about police detective John Rebus. It’s hard to put an exact figure on on how many books there are in the series. It depends very much on how you count them and on how many fingers and toes you use to try and keep track of them. Either way, this one is the latest in the series. I don’t think that it is possible to read the book as a stands alone story – you really need a fair bit of background knowledge about what has happened to the characters in previous novels in order to fully appreciate what is gong on in this one.

Rebus is now well and truly retired from the force and is starting to become accustomed to life on the pension. He no longer has the strength to climb the stairs to the apartment he has lived in for most of his life – he suffers from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and it has taken its toll on him. So he has sold the place and has bought a ground floor apartment just round the corner. As the novel opens, he and his dog Brillo, with a little help from his old police colleague Siobhan Clarke, are moving the last of his belongings into the new flat.

Before he can properly settle in, Rebus receives a phone call from his daughter Samantha. Her partner Keith Grant, the father of Rebus’ granddaughter Carrie, has gone missing and she is frantic with worry. Rebus leaves Brillo in Siobhan’s capable hands and heads off into the wilds of the far north coast of Scotland, where Samantha lives, to see what he can do to help. Rebus soon learns that Keith had developed an obsessive interest in an old WWII Prisoner of War camp known as Camp 1033. He had been working with the local historical society to recover its history with a view to perhaps restoring it and opening it as a tourist attraction. Rebus goes exploring and it isn’t long before he finds Keith’s dead body at the camp. The man has been bludgeoned to death and his notes and his laptop computer are missing. The local police start a murder investigation. Grudgingly, Rebus is forced to admit that they do seem to know what they are doing, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to interfere in the investigation particularly when it becomes clear that the police consider Samantha to be a major suspect in the killing. She’d been having an affair with someone else and as a consequence she and Keith were no longer on the best of terms. They’d had a big argument the night before he disappeared. The evidence may be circumstantial, but nevertheless, it is quite convincing to everyone except Rebus himself.

Meanwhile back in Edinburgh, the police team that  Siobhan works with are investigating the murder of a young Saudi student from a wealthy family, who has been found stabbed to death in a disreputable part of the city. For reasons which, initially at least, remain mysterious, Siobhan’s old nemesis Malcolm Fox has been seconded from Major Crimes to help with the investigation.

The Saudi student had business dealings with some local entrepreneurs, upper class wheelers and dealers of sometimes dubious legitimacy. It isn’t long before Siobhan and her team are up to their elbows in chinless twits and entitled snobs. One of the major players is a Sloan Ranger called Lady Isabella 'Issy' Meiklejohn – you can tell exactly what kind of person she is just by learning her name! She is the daughter of a Scottish Lord who owns vast tracts of land in the far north of the country, land which includes POW Camp 1033...

The connection between the murder of the Saudi student and the murder of Keith Grant may be a tenuous one, but it is definitely there and so it isn’t long before Siobhan and John Rebus are collaborating again, just like they did back in the good old days.

The plot, such as it is, is really rather thin. It isn’t very hard to work out what’s going on and the identity of the murderers is not all that much of a mystery. There are no big surprises here, no grand denouement. The whole thing is really all rather sordid. Considered as a stand alone police procedural, this is a very minor work indeed. Its strengths, if it has any, lie in the character development of Siobhan Clarke, Malcolm Fox and John Rebus himself. The story throws some interesting light on their relationships and on what makes each of them tick. But you have to know each of them well in order to appreciate these insights, and of course you really have to care about them. That’s why it is essential to have read a lot of the earlier novels in the series before you tackle this one. If you have read those earlier novels you will find this one fascinating. If you haven’t read them you will find this one rather humdrum and mundane.

And, as far as I am concerned anyway, Brillo the Dog has far too small a role to play in the story. In my opinion, he’s the most interesting character of them all!.

Susanna Clarke Piranesi Bloomsbury
David Gerrold Chtorr 01 - A Matter For Men Spectra
David Gerrold Chtorr 02 - A Day For Damnation Spectra
David Gerrold Chtorr 03 - A Rage For Revenge Spectra
David Gerrold Chtorr 04 - A Season For Slaughter Spectra
Ian Rankin A Song for the Dark Times Little, Brown
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